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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

5 Ways Mindful Breathing Calms Your Nerves

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5 Ways Mindful Breathing Calms Your Nerves

It seems like the world gets more complex every day. Our jobs become more demanding, our family’s needs become greater, and now we realize that a pandemic can turn our lives upside down in just a matter of days. All this increasing stress is putting our nerves on edge.

Some people have learned how to deal with stress more effectively than others. Those who haven’t need a quick and effective way to calm their nerves. Fortunately, there is a way. It’s called mindful breathing.

You may have already heard of mindful breathing, but maybe you’re not sure how it can help, or how to practice it. In this article, I’m going to share with you 5 ways mindful breathing can calm your nerves and help you relax. Then I’ll show you how simple the practice is and how quickly it works, so you can be more at ease during stressful times.

1. Calm Your Mind

One of the ways that mindful breathing calms your nerves is by calming your mind[1]. By calming your mind, you reduce the traffic jam in your mind that makes you restless and anxious. It helps you see yourself and the world with greater clarity by bringing you back to the present moment, where all life is taking place.

Many of us have a racing mind that seems almost impossible to slow down. Notice how I said “almost impossible.” The truth is that calming your mind is easier than you might think. It is actually more natural for our mind to be at rest than it is to be agitated. By sitting quietly and doing mindful breathing, you allow your mind to settle down naturally.

2. Calm Your Emotions

Mindful breathing calms your emotions in two ways. First, by calming your mind, you reduce the number of thoughts that trigger your emotions. Second, with a calm mind you see things with greater clarity, so you process events in your life with a more realistic perspective. Let’s examine these two ways a little bit more.

Our emotions are the result of the way we process events and information. Emotions are always preceded by our thoughts, whether conscious or unconscious. So, by calming your mind through mindful breathing, you simply reduce the number of thoughts that produce emotions.

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And since mindful breathing allows you to see the world with greater clarity, you’ll be able to see things differently. You’ll change the programming in your mind that leads to the stressful emotions. On a deeper level, you’ll be more objective in your analysis of information and events. You’ll also see that many things that happen in your life have nothing to do with you personally, so you won’t attach any emotions to them to begin with.

3. Calm Your Body

Mindful breathing also helps calm your body. One of the ways it does this is by relaxing your muscles and controlling the production of noradrenaline, a stress hormone[2]. When you breathe mindfully, your brain sends a signal to your muscles that it’s OK to relax. This is an instinctive reaction that we’ve developed through the evolution of our species. We’ll examine this in more detail below.

Another way that mindful breathing calms your body is through a synergy between the mind, body, and emotions. As you calm any one of these three areas, each will have a calming influence on the other. Think about it for a moment. You can’t have a calm mind with a tense body, or a calm mind with wildly erratic emotions. All three work together.

4. Trigger the Relaxation Response

There are also physiological reasons mindful breathing helps you relax. The body reacts to mindful breathing in what is called the “Relaxation Response.” The term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute.

You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response, where humans react to stressful situations by fighting or running away. Well, the Relaxation Response is basically the opposite reaction. It is a way for us to relax when we are under excessive stress[3].

Remember, stress is a necessary response to tense situations where we have to deal with dangerous or critical situations. However, when we are under constant pressure from our environment, that reaction to stress will persist indefinitely, and this is dangerous to our health. This is where we can use mindful breathing to trigger the Relaxation Response.

In the Relaxation Response, what happens is that your metabolism decreases, breathing slows, heart rate slows, muscles relax, and blood pressure decreases. When you do deep breathing, oxygen supply to the brain increases, and this stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls energy expenditure, heart rate, and intestinal activity, among other functions[4]. This is largely what promotes a state of calmness when you practice mindful breathing and meditation[5].

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Another way by which breathing helps you relax is by stimulating the brain to release endorphins, the hormones that give you a feeling of calm and well-being. The way it works is that when you take a deep breath, your heart rate quickens slightly, and when you exhale, your heart rate slows down. When you do this repeatedly, your breath and heart rate will become in sync, which triggers the release of the endorphins[6].

5. Improve Your Health

Most of us take our breathing for granted. We never think about our breathing until we have some difficulty or ailment. But did you know that how you breathe, and how much, can have a significant impact on your health?

Deep Breathing

In a long-term study, researchers found that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t factors that they had predicted, such as genetics, or diet and nutrition, but rather lung capacity. That is, the larger the lungs, the longer the life spans. They found that with larger lungs you can draw in more air, which leads to better circulation, and less wear and tear on the body.

Researchers have also discovered that greater lung capacity is associated with lower stress levels, less anxiety, and fewer incidences of depression and other mental disorders.

People with larger lungs take slower and longer breaths, so they naturally receive the benefits associated with greater lung capacity. However, this doesn’t mean that those of us with lower lung capacity can’t avail ourselves of the same benefits.

We can train ourselves to take deeper and slower breaths. This is where mindful breathing comes in. Instead of taking short and shallow breaths, make a conscious effort to take a slower and longer breath through your nose, then let it out at the same pace. Try this for a few minutes, and you should experience a calming effect, especially if you’re particularly tense.

Studies have also shown that deep, slow breathing can, in some cases, heal various respiratory ailments, such as asthma, allergies, and even emphysema and autoimmune diseases. There are various other methods and techniques to help you increase your lung capacity[7].

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Breathing Through Your Nose

Another interesting thing that researchers found is that it makes a big difference if you breathe through your nose vs. your mouth. They found that breathing through your mouth can lead to neurological disorders, periodontal disease, and higher risk of respiratory infection. And if that’s not enough, mouth breathing increases your blood pressure, snoring, sleep apnea, stress level, and lowers cognitive function.

Through nose breathing, you will absorb 18% more oxygen, so you can significantly lower your risk of developing these health problems. The way to make nose breathing a habit is to make a conscious effort to do it. That is, practice mindful breathing[8].

How to Practice Mindful Breathing

There are various breathing techniques that revolve around mindful breathing. Here I am going to discuss mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is essentially mindful breathing. In a mindfulness meditation session, you generally sit quietly following your breath. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to train ourselves to be in the present moment and observe what is happening in ourselves and the world around us. Since the breath is always taking place in the present moment, we use it as our anchor.

Here are some basic mindfulness meditation instructions:

Find a quiet place where you will not disturbed for a few minutes. Sit in a chair with your back straight, feet flat on the floor, and your hands in a comfortable position. Gently close your eyes, and begin observing your breath. When a stray thought or outside distraction interrupts your concentration, don’t dwell on it, then gently bring your attention back to your breath.

As you breathe, make a conscious effort to breathe through your nose. Occasionally, take a few deep breaths. Remember to inhale slowly, and exhale slowly. Don’t try to breathe like this for the whole session if you’re not used to it, as you may hyperventilate.

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If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you can start by doing it for about 5-10 minutes at a time. As you get more comfortable with the practice, you can increase your session time to 15-20 minute. I would suggest practicing regularly, such as 4-5 times a week, or every day if you like. The idea is to have some consistency and commitment in order for it to stick, and for you to receive the health benefits.

Take a Break

Another thing you can do is to periodically take a short break and practice mindful breathing. All you have to do is momentarily stop whatever you’re doing, take 3-5 mindful breaths, then resume what you were doing. This should only take a few seconds. The great thing about this mindful breathing technique is that it keeps your mind from getting too agitated, so you can remain calm most of the time.

You can also practice mindful breathing during idle times, such as when you’re waiting in line, or waiting for an appointment. This is a great way to make good use of that time.

Final Thoughts

If you’re like most people, your life has become more complex and stressful as you’ve built a family and advanced in your career. As the demands on your life have increased, so has your stress level.

Many of us never learn how to relax until we’re overwhelmed and stressed out. The good news is that the simple mindful breathing techniques described above are highly effective and work quickly. Furthermore, they also don’t take much time to practice.

You don’t have to let the demands on your life keep your nerves on edge. Not only can you reduce your stress level with mindful breathing, but you can also keep it from rising in the first place.

More Tips on Mindful Breathing

Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Greater Good Magazine: What Focusing on the Breath Does to Your Brain
[2] Search Inside Yourself: Why Mindful Breathing Benefits Mind and Body
[3] Psychology Today: Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response
[4] Science Daily: Parasympathetic nervous system
[5] The American Institute of Stress: Take a Deep Breath
[6] Neurocore: Does Deep Breathing Really Do Anything?
[7] Lung Health Institute: How to Increase Lung Capacity in 5 Easy Steps
[8] The Wall Street Journal: The Healing Power of Proper Breathing

More by this author

Charles A. Francis

Author, meditation teacher, and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute

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Published on October 15, 2021

Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

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Does Anxiety Make You Tired And Why?

When you think of anxiety, several scenarios may come to mind: the endless tossing and turning of a restless night, dread over potential future events, pandemic-related overwhelm, or full-blown panic attacks. Even if you’re not diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you’ve likely experienced anxiety symptoms at some point in your life. In these situations, you might feel a queasiness in your stomach, racing heartbeat, excessive sweating, chest tightness, some tension in your jaw/neck/shoulders, or worrisome thoughts as you prepare for the worst possible scenario. But does anxiety also make you tired?

After experiencing these symptoms, you may indeed feel fatigued. The sensation could fall anywhere on the exhaustion spectrum, from feeling like you just ran a marathon and need to sleep for two days, to just a little worn down and wanting a quick nap to recover.

Below are 7 ways anxiety zaps your energy and how to restore it.

1. Stress Hormone Overload

Anxiety can make you tired via overloading your body with stress hormones. The “fight or flight” response is a key connection between anxiety and fatigue. In fact, this process is made up of three stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. Anxiety triggers our body systems to go into high alert. This is a natural, involuntary reaction that developed in the human brain for survival.

When humans lived with the real, imminent threat of being attacked by a predator, it made sense for our bodies to spring into action without much preparatory thought. Such dangers are rare in modern times, but our brains continue to respond in the same way they did thousands of years ago.

The hormones and chemicals that flood our bodies to prepare us for safety can both affect and be affected by several body systems, and this interaction itself contributes to exhaustion. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two most notable hormones to address here. First, adrenaline is sent out, tensing the muscles and increasing heart rate and blood pressure in preparation to run. Later in the stress response, cortisol is released, enhancing the brain’s use of glucose. This is one of our main fuel sources, so it’s no wonder this contributes to fatigue (see #2).

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You can regulate baseline levels of these stress hormones by regularly practicing yoga, breathwork, meditation, and/or engaging in aerobic exercise.[1] It’s easier to lean into these routines for relief during stress when you’ve already mastered using them during times when you feel calm.

2. Elevated Blood Sugar Levels

Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which is shown to be associated with anxiety in diabetic patients.[2] Many people who experience hyperglycemia report feeling tired all the time regardless of their quantity or quality of sleep, nutrition, or exercise.

Although this connection has shown more prevalent and prolonged effects in diabetics, it also occurs with nondiabetics exposed to psychiatric stress.[3] In fact, for all people, the natural stress response elevates blood pressure and heart rate as well as cortisol levels, all of which increase blood sugar levels.[4] This means that anxiety causes a double-hit of exhaustion related to blood sugar fluctuations.

Instead of reaching for comfort foods like chocolate during times of stress, take a calming walk around the block. Gentle movement alone is a great stress reliever that incidentally also helps to regulate blood sugars.[5]

3. Negative Mindset

Anxiety can also make you tired because of repetitive negative thinking (RNT), which is a common symptom of anxiety. RNT involves continuous thoughts via rumination (dwelling on sad or dark thoughts focused on the past) and worry (angst regarding the future). Some researchers argue that having a longtime habit of RNT can harm the brain’s capacity to think, reason, and form memories.[6] While the brain is busy using its energy stores to fuel negative thought patterns, the energy available for these other more productive endeavors is thereby reduced.

Negative thoughts can also disrupt or prevent healthy sleep patterns, keeping our minds racing at night and effectively wreaking havoc on daytime energy. (See #7)

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Reduce these patterns by reframing your feelings over anxious thoughts. Instead of staying stuck on “what if,” focus on what you can do in the here and now. What activity can you engage in for five minutes (or more) that brings you joy? What are you grateful for, no matter what’s going on around you?

4. Digestive Issues

It’s common for people to experience both intestinal and mental issues simultaneously. This suggests a strong connection between the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is known as the gut-brain axis.[7] Simply put, what happens in our digestive tract (and as a result of what we eat) affects the brain and vice versa.

The gut microbiota is a complex population of GI tract microorganisms. When its balance is altered, the body can develop conditions that affect the gut-brain-endocrine relationship. The endocrine system produces and manages adrenaline, for starters. And the gut bacteria’s production of feel-good hormones (serotonin and dopamine—see #5) ties into this relationship as well.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) receptors are also found in gut bacteria. GABA is a natural brain relaxant that makes us feel good by helping the body to unwind after a stress-induced neurotransmitter release (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline). When GABA activity is low, it leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, and mood disorders. These are just a few of the manifestations that demonstrate how gut bacteria influences behavior. All of these contribute to feeling both physically and mentally tired.

You can minimize the symptoms of depression and anxiety by keeping your gut microbiota balanced with probiotic-rich fermented foods. Yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, miso soup, and tempeh are great foods to include in your diet.[8]

5. Depression

Anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Research continues to indicate a complex relationship between depression and decreased serotonin—a key neurotransmitter for regulating mood and feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Anxiety is also a direct symptom of serotonin deficiency. Serotonin helps with healthy sleep, mood, and digestion.

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Serotonin is produced in the gut, almost exclusively, at an estimated 90 percent. However, a small quantity is also produced in the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that is pivotal for transmitting energy balance signals. This small cone-shaped structure receives and relays signals transmitted via the vagus nerve from the gastrointestinal tract. It has a central role in mediating stress responses, regulating sleep, and establishing circadian rhythms. It senses and responds to a myriad of circulating hormones and nutrients, directly affecting our mood and energy.[9]

Dopamine is another mood-boosting neurochemical that is depleted in depression. It creates feelings of alertness and wakefulness and, when the body is operating normally, is released in higher amounts in the morning (allowing for daytime energy) and lower at night (preparing for healthy sleep). Stress is one factor that can deplete dopamine, thereby leading to depression, sleep disorders, and fatigue.

Studies show that dopamine levels in the brain can be elevated by increasing dietary intake of tyrosine and phenylalanine.[10] Both of these amino acids are naturally found in protein-rich foods like turkey, beef, eggs, dairy, soy, peas, lentils, and beans.

6. Breathing Problems

Breathlessness and anxiety are closely linked, and this is one of the ways anxiety can make you feel tired. Anxiety can lead to shallow breathing, which can cause shortness of breath while feeling breathless can exacerbate anxiety.[11] It’s a vicious cycle that often leads people to take rapid and shallow breaths, breathing into their upper chest and shoulders.

This type of breathing minimizes oxygen intake and usability. Despite comprising only two percent of the body, our brains consume 20 percent of the body’s oxygen supply. Oxygen is fuel for both mental and physical tasks. When breathing patterns compromise healthy oxygen levels, this can cause considerable fatigue.[12]

End the anxiety-fatigue cycle with focused breathing exercises. It’s important to practice this regularly while you’re not experiencing anxiety or stress, as this will help you to be prepared should a moment of breathless anxiety hit unexpectedly.

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There are several different styles of breathing exercises. There’s an easy one to try, called “Resonant Breathing.” Simply breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to five, then exhale for a count of five. Repeat this for a few minutes. It’s helpful to bring your awareness to any tension, deliberately relaxing your neck, shoulders, and jaw in particular.

7. Sleep Issues

Most of the elements we’ve already discussed inherently tie into sleep issues, which is often the reason why anxiety can make you feel tired. But it’s important to note that this is not always a directly linear cause-and-effect process. Much of it is cyclic. If we don’t get enough quality sleep, we increase our risk of excessive cortisol production, elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels, depressed mood and mindset disorders, and dysregulation of appetite/craving hormones that affect our digestive health.

Sleep is obviously the number one antidote to feeling tired as a result of anxiety. But at the same time, many of these elements—including anxiety itself—lead to less-than-restorative sleep. We can improve our energy levels by addressing each element discussed here, as well as taking a proactive approach to our sleep health.

One simple habit to help recalibrate your circadian rhythm for healthy sleep patterns is to get outside in the morning. Sunlight exposure in the early hours of the day regulates melatonin production, helping us to feel sleepy at night.

You Don’t Have to Live Your Life Anxious and Exhausted

Times of extreme stress, like driving in heavy traffic or nerve-wracking situations like public speaking, can easily induce an anxiety response. Even “normal” everyday stressors, like feeling overwhelmed with work and home responsibilities, can build up to anxious feelings over time.

Our bodies’ response to stress and anxiety affects many of its functions in complex ways. When we unravel the interconnections of these processes, we can see how each part plays an intrinsic role in contributing to fatigue. By addressing each element individually, we can make simple lifestyle changes that resolve anxiety and diminish the ways it makes us tired as a result.

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More Tips on Coping With Anxiety

Featured photo credit: Joice Kelly via unsplash.com

Reference

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